It was as if the ceiling cracked suddenly, and the light danced all around us, defying all fear or obligation.
the first year
The first year that I cut down all the dead kudzu, putting a tarp down to stop the new growth.
The first year that all of our plants are on shelves.
The first year that we only have one plaid couch.
The first year that we have a real living room that I can read in.
The first year that I reread Peter and the Starcatchers and realized that even that book has dangerous patriarchal and misogynist imagery in it.
The first year that I feel capable of living.
why do we mourn so
Let’s set the scene: it’s Saturday, noon is long gone, the rain makes steady music as it plop plop plops on our living room windows, and we are scraping eggs off our mismatching breakfast plates. My body feels calm, grateful, open.
I open the hardware-store paper bag labeled “Seeds We Already Planted” and dump the contents on the dining room table. It’s time to thin some seedlings. Maybe. I’m not sure, because I really don’t know what I’m doing.
I mean, I kind of do – I have a few years of experience under my belt, but honestly, I’ve never bothered to thin the seedlings after planting the seeds. I always just plant the seeds in little pots, and hope for the best. The green bean seedings get all gangly and start twisting all over each other, the snap peas usually shrivel up after producing one or two peas, and the tomatoes fight it out to see which seedling will make it to the big pot.
BUT THIS YEAR WOULD BE DIFFERENT. This year our veggies would be SO ABUNDANT that we wouldn’t even be able to EAT all the food we grew in our garden. The quality and yield would be the best they’ve ever been! We would be vegetable heroes! We, and every single one of our friends, would never have to buy vegetables again! Etc etc goes my brain (notice how my perfectionism leaks into everything, even this gardening hobby, which is supposed to be nourishing and slow).
So, mug of mint tea in hand, I hunker down at the dining room table to thin what’s ready to be thinned.
First, I grab a small plastic pot, labeled “Zuch.” The zucchini seed packet says to thin the seedlings when they get to be about 3”. Perfect! These were around that size. Elated, I carefully wiggled and shook the flimsy pot back and forth until the seedlings came out in a lumpy, wet mess of dirt and green.
At this point, I was feeling like a really good person. You know when your brain just starts telling you how great you are, when you’re doing really simple things like folding the laundry or sweeping the floor? My ego was whispering all this bullshit into my ear, like, “wow look at you, thinning seedlings, you’re such an upright citizen gardener,” and, “it’s so impressive how consistently you are caring for your plants, you should really get an award for your organizational skills,” and “you are truly earning your place in society right now – usually, you’re really quite a failure, but right now you’re coming in for the win.”
But then came the doom.
As I was expertly shimmying the zucchini seedlings out of their pot, I happened to rotate the pot juuuuust a little bit, and there, written in the same silver Sharpie, in my own handwriting, was the word “cauliflow.”
CAULIFLOW?! THIS WASN’T A ZUCCHINI AT ALL. This was a cauliflower seedling DISGUISED as a zucchini. I HAD BEEN READING LAST YEAR’S LABEL. WHY DID I NOT CROSS OUT LAST YEAR’S LABEL. WHAT AN IDIOT.
Panicking, with the sharp acidity of anxiety welling up in my chest, I scrambled to find the cauliflower seed packet, while the cauliflower seedlings and wet dirt languished in a sad pile on the table.
The cauliflower seed packet gave the following directions: “Thin seedlings when they are 4-6 inches in height, with the final spacing of the plants 2 feet apart.”
4-6 inches. I HAD PULLED THESE POOR LITTLE ONES OUT OF THEIR COMFY NEST AT A MERE 3 INCHES. This would absolutely not do. Thinning the cauliflower prematurely by 1 inch would most definitely be the death of them (yes, writing this now, I see the absurdity of that conclusion). I aborted mission. I quickly stuffed a bunch of dirt back into the plastic pot, and nestled the cauliflower seedlings back in there, all four of them. There. They seemed perky still. No harm done.
The anxiety stayed, though. I was now in a fog. I had that feeling you get when you’re in a room with two people who are in a huge fight, and you’re really trying to ignore the situation because you feel like you’re not supposed to be witnessing this ugly conflict, but you’re forced to just remain in the room, because it would be even weirder if you left at this point. That feeling, plus a feeling of being lightly choked, slowly but surely, by someone who really didn’t want me to exist.
I thinned a few other plants – some tomatoes, a few snap peas. Each seedling got its own little pot. Then, it happened.
In my now-disregulated (and thus significantly more clumsy) state, I brought all the seedlings over to the sink to water them. I placed the smaller pots along the edge of the sink, and let the large pot of snap peas sit in the sink to drain. Once the snap pea pot was ready, I hauled it up – too quickly. My elbow collided squarely with the pot of freshly-tucked-in cauliflower seedlings, and they fell, in slow motion, down into the sink. Face down.
The tiny green stems were crushed. They fell from such a high height and couldn’t withstand the weight of the pot and dirt. They had already been ripped out, left out, and replanted in the last half hour. It was too much. They lay there, splayed on the sink bottom, surrounded by globs of soggy potting soil. I tried to reconstruct the pot, but it was no use. The cauliflower seedlings were bent and disfigured beyond repair. They were not going to make it.
At this point, deep grief seeped into my bones. I picked up the four seedlings, so small, so new, so delicate, and slowly carried them to the compost in the palm of my hand. Placing them in the compost was way harder than my rational brain thought it should be. It felt wrong, like these cauliflower seedlings needed a song, a ritual, a funeral march, and not just an unceremonious trip to the compost bin. They were living just a second ago. They were thriving. They were making it in the world. They were so beautiful. And now I was just leaving them to decompose. And worse, it had been my fault. I had killed them.
I’m not sure why I spent so long describing my thinning shenanigans, and not nearly as long describing the grief. The grief was why I chose to come here and write this blog post. But maybe the grief will be a future post. Here are my brief thoughts on it before I sign off for the night:
- Why do we (and by we, I mean American humans) assign so much weight to death as an ending? Why is death not simply a rebirth or a transfer of energy?
- Why do I feel more tangible grief for these cauliflower seedlings than I do when I see news footage of people dying, or of climate change?
- What is it about young things dying that causes so much suffering in us?
- How did these seedlings dying remind me of my abortion 4 years ago?
- Why does it scare us when we realize we are a part of nature, and therefore have very little control over what lives and what dies?
this is how it’s supposed to be
this is how it’s supposed to be.
life is not meant to be easy
it is not meant to have obvious meaning
or to satisfy some colossal curiosity.
Life was never meant to be simple.
Nature isn’t simple.
Humans aren’t simple.
we are here
even that statement contains
this is how it’s supposed to be.
an evening visit
I wouldn’t have thought to sit outside, with the air as cool as it was. This must be why we keep friends, I thought, so we’re not just doing what we always do, in the way we always do it. I wouldn’t have considered the blankets, and the warmth of the dogs, and the feeling of fresh air filling my lungs. It was my friend’s porch. Across town was my house, where we’ve experienced two drive-by shootings on our street, multiple stolen car chases, and a flat-out murder in our front yard, in which the wounded man stumbled down our driveway, finally collapsing and dying in our backyard by the lilac bush, where my partner found his body minutes later. Often, as I stand on our front porch drinking coffee, men will stop to inquire if I have a boyfriend, and if I work out, as if that is their business, as if I am inviting them to ask, just by existing on my own front porch in the morning. Across town, being outside has felt less relief, more risk. Outside, we’re at the whims of the natural order of things, but with guns. But here, in my friend’s neighborhood, where there hasn’t been a wayward gun shot for years, we took our blankets out to the back porch as the sun set in the evening. The light was a cool blue, sky still bright against the swallows and bats that flew eastward, mysteriously only flying in this one direction. We posited that maybe it was actually only one bat, flying in circles, just to confuse us. But this was simply a silly story made up to amuse ourselves as we sat there. We talked about the crops we were planting (zucchini, fruit trees, tomatoes) and what time of year was best to plant seeds. We talked about the work we were doing on our houses. We talked about how healing from trauma is non-linear, but how processing it seems to alleviate symptoms. We sat in silence a lot of the time. We talked to the dogs. We breathed in the air. Our nervous systems relaxed after each of our separate, scattered and stressful days. We watched the light die and noted how the longer days had somehow brought life back into our bodies. We talked about cycles. I wouldn’t have thought to sit outside, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
just a small question
are we just walking
our bodies around the block
to prove we exist?
when will we just be?
Will we ever stop trying to improve, and just let ourselves be?
nothing is ours at all
there’s something in the way we
catch at words,
gently tucking them away
into the softest parts of ourselves.
it’s not The Truth
(that so quickly dissolves into
chaos, obeying entropy
over our ornery need for absolutes)
it’s not Comfort
(a myth that seems to
out of reach)
it’s more the clinging, quiet
moment in which each of us discovers
how small we are
or, rather, it’s the thousands
of tiny, breathing moments in which
we remember, all of a sudden,
for a fleeting inhalation,
that nothing is ours at all
or, rather, the visceral
stirrings that belong only to us.
we have taken in more than we can bear.
we have held floods.
we have failed to protect ourselves.
we have asked for too much.
this is not a salve, but rather
a snag in the balance,
when the world can’t help
but stop and listen.
when we choose the same words
I remember the oozing, frothing rage I felt at the scraggly neighbor at the annual block party. Or maybe he wasn’t scraggly, necessarily, maybe he was clean-cut and looked like a relatively normal, early 2000s, ex-hippie dad, but he looked scraggly as fuck to six-year old me. He was a stranger. He was a scraggly stranger who, when my sister fell off her bike and cut her hand, knelt down to touch her hand and ask her if she was okay.
We were all riding our bikes around like hooligans, yelling and laughing and having a great time. As soon as she fell, I stopped my bike and moved towards her, but he got there first. He was paying attention. She wasn’t okay. Maybe she was crying. Maybe she was bleeding. He was the closest responsible adult. He wrapped his arms around her tiny shoulders in comfort, attending to her.
I think, to a passerby, it looked like a friendly neighbor was comforting a child because he happened to be in close proximity, and her parents happened to be somewhere else enjoying the gathering. It takes a village. To a passerby, I didn’t exist in that scene, and I didn’t need to. I was just another kid. I was standing far enough away that I was outside the frame.
To me, though, it was a different scene. I was the sister. I was her Protector, and I was failing. I was frozen, rigid with rage, torn between running as fast as I could to pull our parents away from their conversation, and staying to protect my sister from this monster. I watched in horror as this unknown man put his body and hands on my sister. Boiling lava erupted inside me and ravaged my small chest. I didn’t know how to get in between them, so I just yelled “I’m her sister!” when he asked where her family was, hoping that that would somehow communicate to him that she was taken care of, that there was absolutely no need for him to pay any attention to her.
I think he let go when my mom came over to check on the situation. There was absolutely nothing inappropriate about what he did. He was a kind man filling in as a fatherly figure, and nothing more. I didn’t voice my rage to anybody – it made no sense in that scenario. That intense feeling of anger and powerlessness stayed with me, though, and resurfaced in various moments of my life after that.
This was such a vivid experience that I wrote about it a few of years later in my 2004 journal when I was nine years old. I’ll include it here, complete with all the original spelling and grammar mistakes.
Its like that time Maya fell off her bike at the tallent show. She scraped her knee. She was crying and bleeding. A man ran over. He huged her. He kept hugging her. Boiling hot lava bubbled up, I was mad + afraid. I stood there, riged. I stared. Here, was this man, daring to touch my sister when she was hurt. My mom and dad still hadn’t noticed. I ran to them. “Mommy!” I said, Maya fell off her bike!” This man’s Hugging Maya!” I shouted, well, so the man couldn’t hear. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” my mom said. She didn’t know how I felt. My mom ran over to Maya. She took her out of the man’s arms. A lot of the Hotness stopped then, But I still had enough left to glare at him. I don’t think he noticed I was staring at him.-Siena’s Journal, November 28, 2004
I didn’t look at my original journal entry until after I had written this blog post. I knew it existed, but wanted to wait until after writing my account of what happened to reference my journal. The only thing I got wrong was that Maya cut her knee, not her hand. I think it’s fascinating how my memory of it now differs slightly from my memory of it at nine. How some moments are elongated, some shortened. The things I chose to focus on over others.
The most fascinating aspect, though, is that there are certain words I chose at twenty-seven that are exactly the same as the words I chose at nine:
- boiling lava
- fell off her bike
No, this is how it is
This is how it is: the morning hour, when, alone, I walk barefoot to the bathroom to face myself again. This is how it is: slipping into the small, eastern room to let the oblivious sun envelop me before it fades.
This is how it is: the heavy head tilting towards the kitchen steam, battling shame.
This is how it is: war, when surrender would make for better company.
This is how it is: the hour when, precious and alone, I am not Woman, or Worker, or Teacher, or Separate.
This is how it is: the hour, when, seemingly alone, all I expect of myself is everything.
This is how it is: an intentional prolonging, stretching the illusion of solitude.
No, this is how it is.